Subscribe to this page via e-mail here - Subscribe

Article 0127 - Persucutions and Problems

Persecutions and Problems Facing the First Century Church

Jon Gary Williams

During the first century the Lord's church experienced many difficulties - - persecutions from without and distractions from within. Wicked people from the outside, of both the Jews and Gentiles, strongly opposed the growth of Christianity; and from within the church there were those who caused turmoil and divisiveness.

A reflection upon the various difficulties with which the brethren of the first century were confronted gives us an appreciation of what they endured during the early days of Christianity.

In the scriptures are found various persecutions and problems faced by the first century church. These many dilemmas, found from the book of Acts to Revelation, are documented below and contain brief descriptions of each of the recorded occurrences. An abbreviated summary of these difficulties can be useful reference information when studying the history of first century Christianity.

It should be noted that since the labors of the apostle Paul comprise a large portion of the book of Acts - - and since he penned most of the epistles - - many of the recorded persecutions from without and problems from within relate especially to his own experiences. However, it must be remembered that Paul's work made up only a fraction of the evangelism carried on throughout the church in the first century. Taking into account the labors of all the apostles as well as the prophets and preachers, the overall difficulties experienced throughout the early church are, of course, greatly multiplied.

Persecutions From Without

Acts 5:18 - At Jerusalem, because of their preaching, healing and casting out unclean spirits, the apostles were imprisoned.

Acts 7:54ff - At Jerusalem Stephen was stoned to death. Saul (later Paul) was a party to this.

Acts 8:1-3 - At Jerusalem angry Jews, including Saul, brought great persecution against the church.

Acts 9:1,2 - At Damascus Saul threatened the church and had Christians arrested.

Acts 9:23,29 - Now, as a Christian, Paul's enemies among the Jews sought to have him killed.

Acts 12:1,2 - At Jerusalem King Herod persecuted the church and killed the apostle James.

Acts 12:5 - At Jerusalem King Herod imprisoned the apostle Peter.

Acts 13:6-11 - At Paphos the sorcerer Barjesus opposed Paul's preaching.

Acts 13:50 - At Antioch of Pisidia the Jews persecuted Paul and Barnabas, causing them to be expelled.

Acts 14:2-5 - At Iconium the Jews and Gentiles severely opposed Paul and Barnabas and planned to have them stoned.

Acts 14:19 - At Lystra Jews from Antioch and Iconium stoned Paul, leaving him for dead.

Acts 16:16-18
- At Philippi a demonic spirit who possessed a woman tried to turn people away from Paul's preaching.

Acts 16:22-24 - At Philippi Paul and Barnabas were brought before the rulers, given many stripes and cast into prison.

Acts 17:5-9 - At Thessalonica because Paul and Silas converted many people, envious Jews falsely accused them and forced them to leave.

Acts 17:18,33 - At Athens Epicurean and Stoic philosophers challenged Paul calling him a babbler and mocked him for teaching a resurrection of the dead.

Acts 18:12-17 - At Corinth the Jews caused an insurrection against Paul.

Acts 19:24-41 - At Ephesus Paul preached against worshiping idols. The silversmiths who made their wealth with such idols caused an uproar against Paul.

Acts 21:27-31 - At Jerusalem Jews from Asia (Asia Minor) accused Paul of defiling the temple and made plans to kill him.

Acts 22:4 - Paul here reviews how bitterly he had persecuted the church.

Acts 22:19 - Again Paul reviews his severe persecution of the church.

Acts 23:12-22 - At Jerusalem forty wicked Jews banded together, planning to kill Paul.

Acts 25:2,3 - At Jerusalem wicked Jews and the high priest asked Festus to bring Paul from Caesarea to Jerusalem, at which time they planned to have him killed.

Acts 26:9-11 - Paul told King Agrippa II how severely he had persecuted Christians.

Acts 28:22  The chief Jews at Rome told Paul that the church was, "everywhere spoken against." 

Romans 8:35 - Paul's mention of tribulation by persecution, peril and sword no doubt suggests that Christians at Rome had suffered such. (see also Romans 12:14)

I Corinthians 15:9 - Paul clearly states that he had persecuted the church.

II Corinthians 1:8-10 - In Asia, Paul and his companions suffered great persecution from unnamed sources, even to the point of possible execution.

II Corinthians 4:8-10 - Paul lists various ways he and others were opposed, but were able to overcome: troubled, distressed, perplexed, persecuted, bearing in their bodies the dying of Jesus, and even being delivered unto death.

II Corinthians 6:4,5 - Paul gives additional ways he suffered persecution from without: affliction, distresses, stripes, imprisonments.

II Corinthians 11:23,24 - Here Paul gives a long list of the punishments he endured for the cause of Christ.

II Corinthians 15:32 - Paul mentions his "fighting with beasts" at Ephesus, referring to being challenged by his bitter enemies there.

Galatians 1:13 - Paul points out that he persecuted the church beyond measure. (see verse 23)

Philippians 3:6(a) - Paul again speaks of how he persecuted the church.

II Thessalonians 1:4 - Paul commends the Thessalonians for their patience and faith during persecutions and tribulations.

I Timothy 1:13 - Paul describes his own sinful passion of persecuting Christians.

II Timothy 3:11 - Here Paul refers to persecutions he endured at Antioch, Iconium and Lystra.

II Timothy 4:14,15 - Paul's work of evangelism was hindered by Alexander, a coppersmith, and Timothy was warned to avoid him.

I Peter 2:12 - From Peter's remarks it is obvious that Gentiles were speaking evil about Christians. (see I Peter 4:4)

Revelation 1:19 - Because of his preaching the apostle John had been exiled to the isle of Patmos.

Revelation 2:9,10; 7:14 - The mention of "tribulations" points to oppression from without.

Revelation 17 - This chapter gives a dramatic picture of the "Mother of Harlots" severely persecuting the Lord's church.

Problems From Within

Acts 15:1,5 - At Antioch of Syria corrupt Christians (Pharisees) from Judea (Jerusalem) were saying that if Christians wanted to be saved they must keep the law of Moses.

Romans chapters 2 and 3 - Some Jewish Christians were elevating themselves above Gentile Christians, which false ideas Paul strongly warned against.

Romans 6:1,15 - Some felt that since they were Christians and under the grace of God, sinning was not a problem. They falsely assumed that as long as they possessed faith it made no difference what kind of life they chose to live.

Romans 9:19-21 - Some had questioned God's judgment, implying He was unjust. That is, if God has determined man's actions, and if man is unable to resist His will, how could God hold him accountable?

Romans 14 - Some were judging others over nonessential matters, such as the observing of days and eating of meats.

Romans 16:17, 18 - Some had advocated false ideas which created divisions and caused occasions of stumbling. Paul said they should be identified and avoided.

I Corinthians 1:10,11 - Division was affecting the unity of the church at Corinth. Throughout the book Paul continues to deal with the problem of divisiveness.

I Corinthians 1:12,13; 3:1-5; 4:6,7 - Members had become carnally minded, elevating the men who had baptized them and in this, priding themselves.

I Corinthians 3:18-20 - Apparently there were some at Corinth who trusted in their self assumed wisdom.

I Corinthians 4:18-21 - Some members at Corinth were proud, believing Paul was afraid to come to Corinth to face them. He warns them that he was coming, hopefully in peace and not with punishment.

I Corinthians 5 - One man among them had become guilty of adultery. However, the church had failed to properly discipline him, for which Paul strongly rebuked them.

I Corinthians 6:1-8 - Some were taking their differences before civil courts instead of having things settled within the church.

I Corinthians 7:1-17 - Apparently there was disagreement regarding whether it was good to remain unmarried, which led to a misunderstanding of the purpose of marriage.

I Corinthians 8:1 - There was division over whether or not it was right to eat meats that had been offered to heathen idols.

I Corinthians 11:4-16
- Contrary to what was instinctively right - - that women's hair should characterize what is fitting of Christian character - - some had cut their hair and were seen to appear like the prostitutes of the heathen temples.

I Corinthians 11:17-34
- The Lord's supper was being debased because of overindulging at the meals partaken of at their weekly gatherings. This even went to the extreme of excluding some of the less fortunate members.

I Corinthians 12 - Apparently there was a problem among members as to which miraculous gifts were more important. Paul explains that all members of the church were important no matter what gift they may possess.

I Corinthians 13 - As to the issue over miraculous gifts, Paul explained that without the more excellent way of love all these gifts were useless. And he adds that, in fact, these gifts will one day pass and come to an end.

I Corinthians 14 - Paul strongly warns about the disorderly use of the gift of speaking in foreign languages in their assemblies. He also deals with the proper role of women in their assemblies.

I Corinthians 15:1-34 - Paul now deals with those who doubted the general resurrection of the dead and gave extensive reasons to reject such doubting.

I Corinthians 15:35-58 - Some questioned the logic of the resurrection; that is, how will dead bodies be raised and what kind of bodies will they be?

II Corinthians 2:6-9 - Of the man guilty of adultery (I Corinthians 5), the church had exercised severe punishment. However, they carried this too far, failing to extend to him love and forgiveness upon his repentance.

II Corinthians 6:14-17 - Some among them had, in different ways, bonded together with wicked people of the world. Paul gives warnings about being unequally joined with such nonbelievers.

II Corinthians chapters 10-13 - Unsound members were speaking negatively about Paul, ridiculing him and refusing to endorse him. In the last four chapters of this epistle Paul, in a lengthy discourse, exposed these deceivers. He humbly explained how he rises above them by showing how he suffered for Christ and how God exalted him by making known to him special revelations.

Galatians 1:6-9 - Jewish converts who would not give up the law of Moses were hampering the churches in the region of Galatia. Paul condemned them for preaching their false gospel.

Galatians 1:11 - 2:14 - Some Jewish converts were rejecting Paul's authority and the gospel he preached. He strongly refuted their claim and confirmed his authority by recalling his conversion and his strong preaching background.

Galatians 2:16 - 5:26
- Because of the influence of these divisive converts, Paul relates an extensive discussion of the need for brethren to remain faithful to Christ and not be drawn back into Judaism. (Note: Some have observed that if the apostle Paul had not stood firm in exposing the error of these false teachers, some of the churches of Galatia, and elsewhere, may well have been turned back to keeping the law of Moses.)

Philippians 1:15-17 - While some men preached with love and sincerity others preached out of envy and strife, hoping to add adversity to Paul's work.

Philippians 3:18.19 - There were many whom Paul called "enemies of Christ" because their god was their appetite and all their focus was only upon this present life.

Colossians 2:16 - Paul warns the brethren about being wrongfully influenced by those who unjustly criticized brethren regarding the observing of harmless, Jewish occasions.

Colossians 2:18 - Paul also warns the brethren about the corrupt influence of those who teach that they must worship angels and participate in seeing visions.

I Thessalonians 2:18 - Because of being hindered by Satan (through false brethren), Paul was unable to make a trip to Thessalonica.

II Thessalonians 2:1-3 - Some were teaching the false idea that the second coming of Christ was very near. Paul told them not to be disturbed about this, even if some said they had visions about it, or if they said they had special messages about it, or even if they claimed they had letters about this from Paul himself.

I Timothy 1:3,4
- Paul told Timothy to warn brethren about those who taught false doctrines and practiced spreading myths and foolish arguments that detracted from God's plain faith.

I Timothy 4:1-3 - Timothy is given warning about brethren who would be departing from the faith; they would be hypocritical, forbidding some to marry and to refrain from eating certain meats.

II Timothy 2:14-18 - False teachers with their frivolous ways were undermining the faith of some. Paul mentions two by name, who were teaching that the resurrection had already occurred.

II Timothy 3:1-9 - Again Paul tells Timothy about perilous times ahead when corrupt people within the church will be creating problems.

II Timothy 4:10 - Paul mentions one man by name, Demas, who had forsaken him. Apparently this was a hindrance to Paul's work in evangelism.

Titus 1:10-14 - These unruly, vain people to whom Paul refers were not unbelievers, but were members of the church who were creating havoc among the brethren. Titus was to rebuke them, to encourage them to be sound in the faith.

Hebrews 2:1-3 - From these words of the writer of Hebrews it appears that some were in danger of neglecting their salvation.

Hebrews 10:25 - Some were forsaking the first day of the week assembling of the saints, not holding fast to their faith.

James 4:1-12 - Paul admonished those who were in many ways living worldly, promoting strife and division among the brethren.

James 4:13-15 - Some were boasting about their accomplishments, failing to realize that it is God who is in control.

James 5:1-6 - Strong admonition is given to those who had pride in their riches. They were self-indulgent and unconcerned about the welfare of others. Such a corrupted way of living was harming the Lord's church.

I Peter 4:12,13 - Peter tells Christians of the future trials and sufferings that are ahead.

II Peter 2:1-3 - Here are strong words of caution regarding false prophets that would arise among them, denying the Lord and exploiting the church.

II Peter 3:3,4 - Peter now tells the brethren of scoffers who would question the second coming of Jesus.

II Peter 3:16,17 - Peter warns his readers to beware of those who twist the scriptures and lead others into error.

I John 2:18-23 - John identified some false brethren as "antichrists" who taught that human flesh was sinful, concluding that Jesus could not have come in the flesh. (compare I John 4:3 and II John 7)

II John 9-11 - Some were failing to follow the truth and brethren were admonished not to partake in their false teachings.

III John - John had to severely rebuke a member, Diotrephes, because he was lording it over the church, driving some away and creating division.

Jude 3,4 - Some ungodly people who crept in among them were teaching that God's grace allowed them to sin, which was a denial of the teachings of God and His Son.

Revelation 2:2 - The church at Ephesus had left its love for Christ.

Revelation 2:15 - In the church at Pergamos some followed the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, encouraging Christians to eat meats offered to heathen idols and were compared to the acts of sinful Balaam of Numbers 22. (Note that the church at Ephesus had resisted the Nicolaitans' doctrine. Revelation 2:6).

Revelation 2:20 - The church at Thyatira had allowed a woman named Jezebel to seduce the brethren to commit many sins.

Revelation 3:1,2 - The church at Sardis was at the point of spiritual death.

Revelation 3:15,17 - The church at Laodicea was lukewarm. Though wealthy, John said they were poor, blind and naked.